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Unfortunate changes in the pipeline for Vermont’s elections

(UPDATED 3/16/2015@11:03AM)
(UPDATED 3/16/2015@4:40PM: OK, so it’s just a bad bill, not a terrible bill)
(UPDATED 3/18/2015@3:44PM: The portion of the bill described in #4 below has been struck.)

H477 is a bill that aims to make a handful of what might seem like administrative changes to Vermont’s election laws, but could have a bigger impact than at first glance. In this age of terrible voter turnout, this could serve to further disenfranchise people from engaging in the electoral process.

There are a few basic and probably uncontroversial principles I want to stake out:

  • Elections are extremely important but limited mechanisms for voters to communicate their wishes about government
  • Retail (that is, single-person) election fraud is rare, but easily detectable
  • Wholesale (compromising an entire polling place) election fraud is rare, but less detectable
  • People legally eligible to vote should have their votes counted correctly

The first, third, and fourth principles are violated by this bill. Several of the changes included in H477 are as follows:

  1. Making voters’ physical addresses public records (this has been on the wish list for the Vermont Democratic Party for several years now)
  2. No longer counting an “X” or a cross to the right of a candidate’s name as a legal vote
  3. Requiring write-in votes to write a name and fill in the bubble. (Previously, filling in the bubble was optional) (17 VSA 2587 still refers to voter intent and marking the ballot with a “cross” for write-ins)
  4. Making it harder for candidates to run under multiple parties (Struck from the bill on March 18th)
  5. Not allowing recounts to be conducted by hand (This part merely got moved and I didn’t spot where it landed.)

At present, many people (like Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, for example) list their Post Office Boxes on their voter registration to maintain their privacy, and candidates and political parties requesting their contact information only receive this mailing address, but not where the person actually lives. With H477, both addresses would become public records.

While it might seem redundant to require voters to “fill in the bubble”, there are a significant number who still mark their ballots with an “X” or a checkmark. Here’s an example. The ballot tabulators can read these correctly, but H477’s proposed change could classify those as invalid markings. Of the ballots from the 2014 General Election that I have access to, I found the following numbers of ballots marked with an “X” or similar:

E. Montpelier: 10/1094 (0.9%)
Fayston: 10/532 (1.9%)
Manchester: 43/1581 (2.7%)
St. Johnsbury: 10/1960 (0.5%)
Westminster: 5/943 (0.5%)
Wolcott: 12/559 (2.1%)

Total: 90/6669 (1.3%)

Because any recounts of these ballots will be done with a tabulator, there will be no option for a human election worker to decide voter intent, and all of these votes could conceivably be discarded. I didn’t count how many write-in votes didn’t have a matching filled bubble, but I’m sure it’s a large proportion of them, and they’d be at risk of being discarded, too.

People like me, who ran under the label of two different parties in 2014, will find it much harder to do so should this bill pass. Chris Pearson put it this way:

The bill would strike the option of using the nomination process to fill a vacancy in the case of “the failure of a major political party to nominate a candidate by primary.”  So for example, in the case of Doug Hoffer, he is only permitted to enter one primary. He files in the Democratic primary and [the Progressives] give him [their] nomination either by giving him at least 250 write-in votes or the current process of a nomination by the state committee.

Chris Pearson and Sandy Haas intend to introduce an amendment when this comes up to a vote tomorrow to allow the nomination process to remain, and while I’m not a fan of any of this bill, their amendment at least makes it slightly better. Please contact your State Rep and ask them to support the amendment, but vote against the bill.


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